READING aloud to infants and preschoolers comes pretty naturally to most parents, grandparents, and assorted friends and relations. But when children start school, those of us who used to be so willing to ``meow'' our way through a favorite kitty book suddenly get stage fright. For some curious reason, we often begin to feel self-conscious about our own out-loud reading ability, perhaps for fear that we'll contradict or conflict with what's being taught in the classroom.
Nonsense, says Paul Copperman, author of Taking Books to Heart: How to Develop a Love of Reading in Your Child (Addison-Wesley, Reading, Mass., $9.95 paper; 273 pp.). Reading aloud to school-age children should be fun for all involved, he contends. What's more, it should complement the mechanical approach to books that predominates in much elementary-school teaching by giving youngsters a glimpse of the grand adventures that await them in literature.
Copperman is founder and president of the Institute of Reading Development, a San Francisco-based private reading school that teaches some 5,000 children and adults each year through programs offered by municipal governments, public and private schools, and colleges and universities. He is also a presidential appointee to the National Council on Educational Research. Armed with those credentials, he writes from a decade and a half of experience in teaching reading, and he has a lot to share. Although his findings can't be considered all that new, they are presented in a fresh and encouraging way.
``There's practically nothing you can do wrong while reading aloud,'' he assures hesitant adults. ``Keep one common-sense principle in mind,'' he adds, and ``...have fun with your child.''
Although he contends that ``one needn't possess the dramatic abilities of last year's Oscar nominees,'' the author does offer some practical pointers about how to pause for effect in reading aloud, how to raise the level of drama and suspense, and how to vary one's voice for different characters. Talking about books is just as important as reading them, according to Copperman, and he suggests what kinds of questions are most likely to get children thinking about what they're hearing.
The premise of Copperman's work is that schools may teach youngsters how to read, but it's up to parents and other concerned adults to teach them the ``why's'' by helping to nurture a genuine love of reading. He recommends a minimum of three 10- or 15-minute reading-aloud sessions per week for preschoolers (more and longer, one would hope), and says that when children enter school, the time should expand into the Family Reading Hour. This doesn't always have to be a full hour, but it does need to be a time without the TV or radio on, when dish washing and other chores are finished, and each member of the family can sit down with a book or magazine.
Copperman contends that this daily ``vital period of pleasure reading'' is needed to balance the ``tedious'' reading instruction that most schools provide. The more often a child sees those around him reading for fun, says the author, the more he'll want to read himself -- to travel in time and place, to ``meet all manner of wonder beings,'' to see them ``surmount all obstacles by being courageous, wise, fair, and good.''
If that sounds like a heady promise, consider it from the point of view of a child who needs constant confirmation of his innate trust in good, who needs to know that despite occasional scary dragons, happy endings will prevail.
Copperman's recurring emphasis on the value of children's literature -- and the value of helping youngsters become avid readers -- is the overriding strength of this book. He takes a few unnecessary detours and probably spends too much time explaining how schools teach reading, but he always returns to this vital message.
Each chapter of Copperman's book closes with a list of recommended titles for reading aloud to various age groups. He argues that folk tales are ``an important source of some of the best writing being done for children of [school] age,'' and three new titles prove his point.
The Selkie Girl (Atheneum, New York, $12.95; ages 6-10) should help to introduce a new generation of readers to the lyric talents of Newbery Medalist Susan Cooper, one of the richest voices in children's literature today. In her latest work, she teams up with illustrator Warwick Hutton to retell a favorite folk legend from her native Great Britain. Versions of the ``selkie'' (seal) girl can be heard all along the coasts of Scotland and Ireland, where ``the islands rise green out of the sea ... and strange things may happen.'' Cooper has found poetic new fields to plow, and her rendition of the story of a young crofter, his seal bride, and their family is both poignant and imaginatively hopeful. In a comforting turnabout on the familiar theme of parents rescuing children, it's the children in this tale who come to the aid of their mother, and their intuitive caring is rewarded many times over. Hutton's dappled watercolor paintings lend an appealing wistfulness.
Across the Atlantic and down Frozen Creek in eastern Kentucky, an Appalachian tale of homespun humor bursts through The Adventures of Charlie and His Wheat-Straw Hat (Dodd, Mead, New York, $12.95; ages 6-9). Folklorist-author Berniece T. Hiser calls this a ``memorat,'' a story based on a true incident, but her readers will likely become too absorbed in Charlie's world of cornpone and molassie pie, round town ball and beeswaxing, to care what's real and what's really neat. Bright primitive illustrations by Mary Szilagyi, who's won awards for film animation, help to keep the narrative pace lively and upbeat but not moralistic.
The humor in the The Owl-Scatterer (Atlantic Monthly Press, Boston, $13.95; ages 6-10) is more subtle, but this tale from the Canadian North Woods has an otherworldly flavor that few of its genre can match. With the help of striking black-and-white wood engravings by Michael McCurdy, author Howard Norman takes us into the village of Big Footprint Lake, where the age-old art of owl-scattering is about to be revived. As tempers rise and feathers fly, the townspeople discover how much they need an eccentric outcast of a hermit, and an idealistic boy begins to find new purpose in his life, as well. Young children will want to have the spookiness explained away, but older listeners will enjoy the spectacle of a hawk-owl perched on top of the head of the general-store owner.